THE fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden has sought asylum in Ecuador after arriving in Moscow from Hong Kong, where he had been in hiding since disclosing a highly classified US surveillance programme, escaping Washington's attempts to extradite him from the island.
Mr Snowden left Hong Kong on Sunday morning on an Aeroflot flight bound for Moscow. He spent the night at a hotel before clearing customs at the city's Sheremetyevo Airport.
He is expected to board an onward Aeroflot flight to Havana that departs early Monday afternoon.
The US said it planned to charge Mr Snowden with espionage on Saturday, and that it had asked Hong Kong to detainhold him on a provisional arrest warrant and had set in motion an official request for his extradition back to the US. Hong Kong issued a statement yesterday saying the request for Mr Snowden's arrest "did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law".
Ecuador's Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, who is in Vietnam, confirmed a statement last night by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, which said Mr Snowden had requestedsought asylum from Ecuador. "The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden," he wrote on Twitter. Two cars from the Ecuadorian embassy were spotted at Sheremetyevo airport, fuelling rumours that Mr Snowden's final destination could be the Latin American country, whose London embassy has given shelter to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder.
The television station Russia Today reported that Mr Snowden had been examined on arrival by a doctor from the Ecuadorian embassy, and the country's ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala, told reporters at the airport that he planned to have talks with Mr Snowden.
"He has arrived," a source inside Aeroflot told Russian agency Interfax yesterday evening. "He cannot leave the terminal, since he doesn't have a Russian visa."
But Mr Snowden's possible flight to Latin America could, however, be hampered by the US, which has revoked his passport, according to American officials cited by APAssociated Press and Reuters. The move would probably complicate Snowden'shis travel plans, but would not necessarily thwart them if a senior official in a country or airline ordered forthe withdrawal to be overlooked.
Reaction to Mr Snowden's arrival in Moscow was relatively muted in Washington, with only few exceptions.
"Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran, and now, of course, with Snowden," Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, told CNN. "That's not how allies should treat one another, and I think it will have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship."
Mr Snowden, who leaked secrets about US surveillance operations, was accompanied on his flight from Hong Kong by a WikiLeaks activist, and WikiLeaks said in a statement that Mr Snowden was heading to a "democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum". The organisation says it fully supports Mr Snowden, who claims thathe carried out his leaks because he was disgusted by the extent of covert activity by US agencies, and made the information available in the public interest.
US authorities say he is a criminal and want to charge him with espionage. The government of Hong Kong said Mr Snowden had left the territory by clearing passport control in the normal way, and said and, adding that the US had not completed the necessary paperwork had not been completed in time by the US governmentin time to establish the need for a provisional arrest warrant and thus prevent Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong. It also expressed irritation at reports that Hong Kong government computers may also have been targeted by the NSA, perhaps going some way to explain the decision to let Mr Snowden go.
When the news of Mr Snowden boarding a plane bound for Moscow broke on Sunday morning, the initial assumption was that he might try to seek political asylum in Russia itself, a country that is not exactly a paragon of internet freedom but which might have been interested in Mr Snowden as a way to hit back at the US. President Vladimir Putin's spokespersoman, Dmitry Peskov, said thathe was not aware of any asylum request but added that if one waswere one made, it would be reviewed like any other application.
As Aeroflot flight 213 crossed the great landmass of Eurasia, however, it became apparent that Moscow might not be Mr Snowden's final destination after all. Early suggestions included Iceland, where a businessman had previously offered to charter a jet for Mr Snowden to bring him to the island and help facilitate an asylum application. Later, when the WikiLeaks connection and the onward ticket to Havana became public, attention focused on Latin America.
The head of the NSA said he did not know how his agency had allowed Mr Snowden to leave Hawaii, where until May he had been working until May at one of its satellite offices, and travel to Hong Kong bearing so many state secrets that he was then to give away..
"It's clearly an individual who's betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This is an individual… [and] who is not acting, in my opinion, with noble intent," General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, told the ABC News programme This Week.